Properly Incrementing an IntPtr

Just as native pointer types are moved around with pointer arithmetic in native code, it can also be useful to move IntPtr types around in managed code.  Say for instance there is an IntPtr available which points to a native array of Dog instances.  To access the values of that array individually requires pointer arithmetic of a fashion.

For the most part this is a straight forward operation if the underlying native memory is understood.  Say there is an array of Dog instances with length 10 and the Dog structure has a size of 8.  The total amount of memory will be 80 bytes and with a valid dog instance being available at every 8 bytes.  So if the start address is 1000 then 1000,1008,1016 and so on will point to a valid instance.

The native size of any data structure can be calculated via Marshal.SizeOf(tyepof(Dog)) [1].  With a pointer to the start of the array, the Nth Dog instance can be accessed with a pointer of address = (N*sizeof(Dog))+startAddress

The address of a pointer can be accessed by 1 of 2 functions

  1. .ToIn32()
  2. .ToInt64()

Unless you are writing an application that will every only run on a 32 bit system, don’t use method #1 (even then still don’t).  Native pointer addresses vary in size depending on version of the OS a program is running on.  64 bit systems have a much larger address size (long vs int).  Consequently calling .ToInt32 on a 64bit system will truncate the actual address to a valid that is no longer valid.  This will eventually lead to a random error PInvoke’ing a function that is difficult to track down.

Instead use .ToInt64().  This method is safe on both 32 and 64 bit systems.  Additionally constructing an IntPtr instance with either value is safe.  The class knows what version of windows it’s executing on and will adjust the size in a safe way [2]. 

In many of my projects I define a class similar to the following to take care of this automatically. 

public static class IntPtrExtensions
    public static IntPtr Increment(this IntPtr ptr, int cbSize)
        return new IntPtr(ptr.ToInt64() + cbSize);

    public static IntPtr Increment<T>(this IntPtr ptr)
        return ptr.Increment(Marshal.SizeOf(typeof(T)));

    public static T ElementAt<T>(this IntPtr ptr, int index)
        var offset = Marshal.SizeOf(typeof(T))*index;
        var offsetPtr = ptr.Increment(offset);
        return (T)Marshal.PtrToStructure(offsetPtr, typeof(T));

[1] It’s highly advisable to not calculate this value yourself. 

[2] See the post “Is IntPtr(long) truncating?” for more details

Comments (7)

  1. int19h says:

    This raises the question: why Increment and Decrement (or possibly better named Move?) is not a part of IntPtr itself?

  2. jaredpar says:

    The two generics ones couldn’t have been added until 2.0.  Why they weren’t I can’t say.  I think there are a lot of more pressing places generics could have been introduced in 2.0 (replacing all of the typed collection implementations for one) and if they didn’t get updated it’s not a surprise IntPtr didn’t either.  Then again this wouldn’t cause any compatibility breaks.  

  3. int19h says:

    Erm, why would they need to be generic? Personally, I would be pretty happy with ones that would just do plain byte increments.

  4. jaredpar says:

    The generic overload is just a handy overload that hides the Marshal.SizeOf() calls.  

  5. int19h says:

    I understand why they are generic in your example. My question was – why IntPtr itself does not provide an Increment() method; i.e., why do I have to cast it to long to do any math and then cast back?

  6. jaredpar says:

    @ int19h,

    Sorry for the mistunderstanding.  Unfortunately I don’t know the answer to that one.  My guess is they didn’t think it was necessary or that advanced users would work aronud it.